I’ve been thinking about productivity a lot lately. Both worries about my lack of it, and my dislike of the term.
Let’s start with the latter.
‘Productivity’ feels like such a cold, heartless, transactional word. As if I’m a cog in a wheel, existing solely to be efficient and generate output (for somebody else). There’s a ruthlessness to the notion.
Yet, if we take it back to the origin of the word, it carries the idea of ‘bringing forth,’ ‘being fertile,’ and ‘abundance’. ‘Creativity’ and ‘fruitfulness’ are other words that capture the essence.
I like the metaphor of fertile soil. When you focus on making the soil healthy, you are cultivating the environment where produce can emerge naturally out of the land. The quality of the conditions determine the abundance of the crop.
(Side note: Despite our best efforts, we cannot fully control the conditions. Some seasons are more fruitful than others regardless of what we do or don’t do. All we can ever do is the best with what we get to shape.)
If we don’t look after the things we can control though, we can’t be surprised if our soil produces very little.
Which leads me to working practices. Particularly for someone like me who is fully remote, working with a fully remote team. What are the ways we should be cultivating the soil of our working environment to ensure a healthy output from our individual and collaborative efforts?
Take the other day. I had just a couple of meetings in the calendar. Plenty of time, I thought, to get through a decent number of tasks on my individual task list. Come 3.30pm though, I’d ended up, more or less, in back-to-back calls from 9am. Not a single item on my list ticked off.
It wasn’t ‘unproductive’, per se. The calls all had value and meaningful work was done in them. But there is a frustration to losing that amount of control over my own day. To be clear, much of my work is collaboration. But, equally, there is a lot that is – and has to be – me, by myself, cracking on with things.
Lots of people address this challenge by starting early and finishing late. They accept that they have little to no control over their own time between 8.30am and 5.30pm, and so start at 7am (or earlier) and finish at 7pm (or later) to give themselves a chance to do their individual work.
I get it. And I’ve done it. But, the more I think about it, that’s all kinds of wrong! Maybe not as a one off, now and then. But absolutely as way of life. If people can only get their individual work done outside work hours, the working environment – the soil – is unhealthy. And the quality of the produce will, eventually if not immediately, be diminished.
(Side note: For info, the science tells us we probably have around four hours at our absolute peak on any given day. Working more and more hours is rarely a good, let alone healthy, solution.)
I’ve considered time blocking in my calendar. But that’s not straightforward. Especially if that isn’t in sync with the people I collaborate with. I don’t want to be a barrier to someone else doing what they need to do. And therein lies the challenge. Whole teams, and indeed organisations, need to have strategies to balance fostering collaboration while protecting time for individual work. As an individual, I can only do so much. I’m fighting a losing battle if others are wanting to collaborate when I’m trying to get my head down.
Ironically, our brains have actually grown to like the jumping around between interruptions too; from one email or message to another, one call to the next. There’s a certain buzz that the multitasking gives us. We even struggle to concentrate and stay focussed on single tasks for long periods of time when we want to. The endless notifications and calls and emails carry a distraction we both crave and despise. But the science is clear: multitasking is terrible! As Sherry Turkle writes in her book ‘Reclaiming Conversation’:
When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving quickly from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurochemical high so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse.
In other words, if a business massively wants to reduce it’s output, get everyone multitasking. All the time!
As teams, as organisations, we need to recognise that we’ll accomplish far more if we’re unitasking for significant chunks of our day. Every distraction pulls us out of deep focus in an instant, but then takes nearly half-an-hour to regain.
I’m not naive enough to think there is any such thing as work nirvana where I get complete control of setting the agenda for when I do collaborative work and when I do individual work. Yet, I know I’m not alone in thinking that the way work works for many people currently is deeply flawed and inefficient. We won’t reach perfection, but it does feel like there’s some changes that simply have to be embraced.